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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Doll

Object 45 - This week’s 100 object post was written by Elizabeth Sharrett, studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute.

Elizabeth Sharrett
SBT 1996-43 Walnut wooden doll from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections
SBT 1996-43 Walnut wooden doll from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day

(5.1.379-382) Twelfth Night

Today’s object is a wooden doll, possibly from the seventeenth century, of German, Dutch, or French origins, and is now in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection. The doll is carved out of walnut and depicts a female figure with her hands clasped. She wears some type of head covering and a dress that hits mid-calf with a necklace carved on her lower chest. She is bare foot with only four toes and stands at 22.8 cm, supported by a block base. In The Taming of the Shrew Grumio mentions “a puppet or an aglet-baby” (1.2.77-78), which according to the OED, was possibly “A doll or (grown-up) ‘baby’ decked with aglets.” Aglets were the metal bit at the end of a lace that helped make threading the string easier. Though it is uncertain whether the doll in the Trust’s collection is definitely a child’s toy, it is clear from evidence of the period that children did have entertainments similar to this little figure. Perhaps the best evidence of children’s toys, specifically dolls, survives in paintings, such as the late sixteenth-century portrait of Lady Arabella from Hardwick Hall. The dolls depicted in paintings, like the one held by Arabella, appear to wear clothing, however, it’s unclear as to whether their forms are made out of wood or fabric.

The relative lack of evidence among primary sources regarding dolls and other children’s toys in Shakespeare’s England perhaps indicates that such luxuries were relatively infrequent among social groups below the aristocracy. From the evidence that can be found, it seems that toys were primarily designed with the education of the child in mind. As Victor Chinnery in his study of Oak Furniture observes of the period, “The childish need for play (for both recreation and manipulative learning) was barely catered for, though most small girls must have had a doll or two, and simple toys were common enough” (p.397). Yet children who did have toys probably still loved them as much as boys and girls today. Children’s reactions to toys are referenced in passing in the translated 1587 work of Mornay Philippe: “how often hast thou taken from thy Childe a puppet or some other toye that he played withal, to see whether he would be stubborne or no…even when he cryed to have it still?” The painting of Lady Arabella shows the 23 month old clutching earnestly to her little doll, and, like the child’s reaction described by Mornay, it appears that she might have a similar response should someone take away her precious toy.